Game Time: 6:00PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, SportsNet, WGN-AM 720
Ben Roethlisberger Is A Gray Dicked Rapist: PensBurgh
In a matchup of rivals that never were, much to the chagrin of Gary Bettman and NBCSN (despite what they’re pitting tomorrow’s game as), the Hawks travel to Pittsburgh for the first of yet another inter-conference mid-week home and home knocking out the season series in 27 hours. And in an even more remarkable turn of events, both Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby are upright for at least tonight’s contest, something that’s eluded both of them in this non-existent battle. Though to what degree is debateable.
There’s a certain school of thought that could argue that these Pittsburgh Penguins are the biggest boning of a turnkey dynasty in all of sports since the beloved mid-80s Bears, both of whom (to date) only have one championship despite a glut of generational and transcendent talent. The problems in Pittsburgh are the same as they’ve always been, no matter how many coaches or GMs they go through, and now it all falls at the feet of Mike Sullivan, who last helmed an NHL team when he oversaw a Bruins team that traded Joe Thornton. Those problems include but aren’t limited to a non-existent bottom six forward group and a slow/dumb/some combination thereof blue line that Sidney Crosby hasn’t been able to fully prop up under the workload, a problem that should sound familiar around these parts.
It’s not that Crosby has been bad. It’s just that he hasn’t been superhuman as he has in the past. He’s driving possession right at slightly below the team rate (49.6% to 50.5%) without the benefit of zone starts and facing the toughest competition. He’s recently started to come alive in the scoring department with 10 points in his last 7 games, but is well off his usual pace with only 29 points in 37 games so far, and only a slight dip in shooting percentage (11.8 to 9.7) from last year to this year while putting the same amount of shots on net per game. He’s basically being asked to carry even more these days as he nears 30 (fucking a), and it’s showing. Running mate Evgeni “Fuck You, Geno” Malkin is still maintaining a brisk point-per-game pace to lead the Pens with 18G and 19A in 38 games, and is one of the few Pens above water in possession at 53% due mostly to the benefit of choice zone starts. Acquisition Phil Kessel has not provided the pyrotechnics expected of him on the wing of either of the aforementioned franchise centerpieces, mostly due to the Pens not having the puck as much as they’d prefer in an ideal world. As has usually been the case, past these two are a lot of mismatched parts, kids and vets alike not providing much in the way of secondary scoring. Matt Cullen is still functional as a bottom six wing and has the veteran savvy to be in the right spot even if it takes him a year, and Patric Horqvist will still be a peroxide blonde obelisk in front of the net, particularly on the power play. And David Perron is still a penis of the highest order and the toughest guy in the rink when there’s a striped referee jersey in front of him.
Things don’t fare any better on the Pittsburgh blueline, who have nigh miraculously had both Kris Letang and Olli Maata healthy for basically the entire year. Both are exceptional puck movers and skaters, though Letang has always been a little positionally abstract in his own zone, and Maata still isn’t quite playing to his size and still well within the all-important 200 game “getting it” cap for pro defensemen. This is a team that went out and acquired Trevor Daley for help on the blue line, so that in and of itself is indictment enough….wait. And as was echoed repeatedly last year, any team that counts on meaningful minutes from Ben Lovejoy is lacking as a defensive unit. One nice surprise however is Brian Dumoulin, who in his first full time shot with the big club is turning the second worst zone starts in the group into its best share of shot attempts among regulars at 51.9%.
Marc-Andre Fleury will get the start in the home half of the series tonight, and as usual, his stats are excellent posting a .927 save percentage overall, though that dips slightly to .919 at home. Flower is similarly excellent at evens with a .931 mark, but of course, none of the regular season numbers have ever been the issue. He’ll forever be defined by his playoff meltdowns, particularly 2012 against the Flyers, despite already having his name on the Cup and making a spectacular save in the dying seconds of a Game 7 to seal it. But such is the fickle nature of goaltending. Either way, Fleury plays a traditional Quebecois butterfly taking away everything low, but at a relatively lanky and athletic 6’2″, he can make some stunning acrobatic saves if need be.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, visa issues will apparently delay the debut of the newly acquired Richard Panik (a name, not a condition), so it appears the only lineup changes from Sunday will be at the bottom of the roster where MANSHITTER will get the call in favor of an again invisible Bryan Bickell, and Rozsival and Scuderi continue their platoon to get Erik Gustafsson consistent work. One thing to keep an eye on will be Trevor Van Riemsdyk’s deployment, as Sunday evening he took the vast majority of his shifts with Rozsival on the third pairing with Gustafsson skating alongside the perpetually winded Brent Seabrook. If the more traditional 57-7 configuration is used tonight, Sullivan would be wise to get Sid or Geno or both out against them. Or Gustafsson and Scuderi. Either/or.
Corey Crawford gets the start tonight on the road half of the home and home, which makes much more sense considering what Scott Darling’s home and road splits are. If the Hawks walk away pointless tonight, don’t be surprised for Q to come right back with Crawford tomorrow with the Sabres at home coming up on Friday night and an opportunity to get Darling work then as well.
While there’s almost no wow-factor to these games, that doesn’t mean they lack importance, as the Hawks are still clawing within the meat grinder Central while the Pens are currently on the outside looking in. While the Penguins are top heavy as usual, they have the center depth in Crosby and Malkin to start giving the Hawks headaches, particularly with the advantage of last change. That can be obviated by Toews’ line getting the better of Crosby’s, but at this point they both seem ready to keel over after a decade of being redlined by their coaches as opposed to grapple for the entire square footage of the 200 x 85 sheet. Just like Gary drew it up nearly a decade ago.